Texas Town Remembers Soldier Lost in Iraq
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
One of the soldiers killed last month in Iraq spent much of his youth on a series of military bases. Army Specialist Matt LaForest was following his father, who was in the Air Force. Then the last son enlisted after high school. He was 21 years old when small arms fire killed him in the city of Taji.
Larry Schooler reports that LaForest's military service was not his only act of bravery.
LARRY SCHOOLER: It's not that surprising that a future Army infantryman might join his high school's Junior ROTC chapter as Matt LaForest did at Austin's Bowie High School.
What surprised his friend Manuel Tovar(ph) was how he responded to the club's initial demands.
Mr. MANUEL TOVAR (Friend): Well, I remember the first time, when I met him it was during drill team practice.
SCHOOLER: After Matt's funeral, Tovar and other ROTC friends shared memories at a restaurant near their old school.
Mr. TOVAR: I remember this too. I made him do push ups one time, and he looked at me; it was like, no.
SCHOOLER: Matt didn't just push the envelope during ROTC. Tovar remembers driving excursions Matt would take him on after school. More like racing excursions.
Mr. TOVAR: If it's raining or dry outside, vroom, he'd go in through lanes like nothing. I'm like, damn, Matt. It was like a new Saturn and I'm in a racing car. He'd race anybody. He wouldn't care.
SCHOOLER: But Matt did care about keeping people around him happy. His friends, Jose Rodriguez(ph) and Stephanie Sumalucia(ph), say his jokes, temperament and his endless enthusiasm made him stand out.
Mr. JOSE RODRIGUEZ (Friend): He was always happy. I mean he'd never seem like he ever hit that moment where he was stressing out or having high school problems. He just was naturally happy. He was able to overcome all that when we did get stressed out and angry.
Ms. STEPHANIE SUMALUCIA (Friend): And he was one of the first ones too. He would always ask me like, are you okay, what's wrong?
Mr. RODRIGUEZ: Oh, yeah.
Ms. SUMALUCIA: Even to anybody, like you're saying, some of the people in the class that other people wouldn't talk to, he would go talk to them, be like, dude, are you okay?
(Soundbite of music)
SCHOOLER: Matt took on other adventures in high school - from playing club soccer to playing trumpet in the school band. Assistant band director Mike Elam remembered Matt as much for his presence as he did for his performance.
Mr. MIKE ELAM (Assistant Band Director): I remember in rehearsals a few times, you know, just wanting the kids to get it and the frustration of trying something new and being in the challenge of it. And then there being that break, that moment of lightness, or you know, just attention breaker of some sort. I just remember him chuckling, and that laughter and that smile.
SCHOOLER: Matt's decision to enlist took some friends and family by surprise. But former ROTC member Stephanie Sumalucia says Matt was well suited for the military.
Ms. SUMALUCIA: He was the guy who wanted to help people. He was selfless. He was courageous. It was like maybe not he was made to do it, but he seems like the perfect candidate to do what he did. I mean he cared so much about everybody.
SCHOOLER: Matt's friends from Austin say he seemed excited, even exuberant about enlisting in the Army, though he knew the risks of joining the military in wartime. Even in death, those who knew him most remember that zest for living that pervaded every aspect of his life.
For NPR News, I'm Larry Schooler.
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